Can a Book Title be Copyrighted?

copyright symbol in chains
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I was recently in the process of writing a book and I wanted to use a title that I know has been used before, so I started checking to see if I could use that title. I didn't want to violate someone's copyright of a title. I found out that the short answer to this question about copyrighting a book title is, "Generally, No." You cannot copyright a book title. 

Book Titles Typically Can't Be Copyrighted

The U. S. Copyright Office does not typically allow someone to copyright a book title because titles are not considered intellectual property, but are only "short slogans," which are not eligible to be copyrighted. The Copyright Office doesn't want titles to be restricted to one book; there may be other works in which the title may be equally usable and appropriate.

An Example: PT 109. McGraw Hill published a book titled PT 109: John Kennedy in World War II, and they attempted to bar Random House from publishing a book titled John F Kennedy & PT 109. The Court found that the words "PT 109" and "John Kennedy" were descriptive or generic terms and therefore not able to be copyrighted.

Another Example: Garden of Beasts

In another example, in 2004, Jeffrey Deaver wrote a book titled "Garden of Beasts," a novel set in Berlin around the time of the 1936 Olympics.

More recently, in 2011 Erik Larsen wrote a non-fiction book set in Berlin in the same time period. Its title is "In the Garden of Beasts." Since Deaver could not copyright his title, we are left with two books with almost identical titles, to confuse us. 

Other Things You Cannot Copyright

Just to be clear, here are some things you cannot copyright, according to the U.S. Copyright Office

  •  Names of products or services
  •  Names of businesses, organizations, or groups (including the names of performing groups) 
  • Pseudonyms of individuals (including pen or stage names)
  • Titles of works
  • Catchwords, catchphrases, mottoes, slogans, or short advertising expressions
  • Listings of ingredients, as in recipes, labels, or formulas. When a recipe or formula is accompanied by an explanation or directions, the text directions may be copyrightable, but the recipe or formula itself remains uncopyrightable.

You May Be Able to Trademark a Book Title or Series Title

A trademark is more difficult to get than a copyright, but you might be able to trademark a book is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office thinks the duplication of titles would be confusing or would dilute someone's brand.

Even if you can't copyright a book title, or the other items listed above, you can register the title as a trademark. For example, "Chicken Soup for the Soul" is a registered trademark, as is the "Dummies" series of books. 

In another example, Fox News trademarked the term "Fair and Balanced" in 1998, but they can't stop someone from using that term in a book title, as Al Franken did in his book: "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."

Writers Digest says,

Trademarks keep others from confusing a well-known work on the bookstore shelves with others. For example, Harry Potter is such a popular, distinguishable character by J.K. Rowling that you’d expect any title with his name in it to be written by her (or, at least, a book approved by her). It’s not only her work, but it’s become her brand.

Before You Copyright or Trademark, Do a Search

You don't have to do a search to see if your work has already been copyrighted, because it is unique to you. But if you want to use a book title, you should first check (on Amazon) to see if anyone else has used that title. If the title has been used in a similar book, you may want to change it to avoid confusion by readers.

If you want to see if a title has been trademarked, you can use TESS, the online search at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Then you can start the trademark process. Yes, you can do it yourself, but it's better to have an intellectual property attorney help you. I've done it both ways and found that an attorney who is familiar with trademarks can considerably improve your chances of getting the trademark through the process more quickly and easily.